From Orinoco to Amazon, Indigenous Warao struggle in search of refuge

  • An estimated 700 Indigenous Warao people from Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta now live in the Amazon Delta city of Belém in Brazil, having fled there from the economic crisis in their home country.
  • In Belém, the Warao live in poor housing conditions, face problems communicating, and suffer prejudice when searching for jobs; without access to natural resources, most of them survive by begging for money on the streets.
  • In 2023, a Belém city councilor worked closely with the Warao to pass legislation in record time on migration policies addressing these and other issues faced by refugees to the city.
  • To date, Belém remains the only city in Brazil with specific legal protection for Indigenous refugees.

Long before the European conquest of the Americas, the Warao Indigenous people, originally from the Orinoco Delta in what is today northeastern Venezuela, lived off nature, supporting themselves by fishing and farming. In recent years, however, they have suffered, like all Venezuelans, the direct impacts of the economic crisis caused by oil price uncertainty and the U.S. embargo. Hit by poverty and hunger, thousands of Warao have emigrated to Brazil in search of refuge and better living conditions. Many have found themselves in Belém, capital of the Brazilian state of Pará, in the delta of that other mighty South American river: the Amazon.

Johnny Riva, 41, is among the Warao who made the move. He used to live in Tucupita, a city located on the Orinoco River, with his wife, Mariluz Mariano, and their three children, along with brothers, uncles and father. The whole family crossed the border into Brazil’s Roraima state, reaching Belém after a journey of some 3,600 kilometers (2,200 miles). They’re among the approximately 6,800 Warao refugees now living in Brazil, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency.

“Our biggest challenges were health care, food and fuel for our canoe,” Riva says. “We were fishers and we made a living by selling the fish. But it became very hard because we’d take the fish to the city to sell, but people no longer had money to buy it. That’s when we decided to leave because we couldn’t take it anymore.”

Now Riva and his family live in Outeiro, a district of northern Belém, in an urban settlement facing Guajará Bay, where housing conditions are poor. They don’t know how to fish in the local waters, and their only canoe was stolen. “A rabeta [motorized canoe] was donated to us, but we didn’t have enough money for diesel,” he says.

Johnny Riva, an Indigenous Warao refugee in Belém. Image by João Paulo Guimarães for Mongabay.
The house where Johnny Riva lives with his family in Belém’s northern district of Outeiro. Image by João Paulo Guimarães for Mongabay.

Historically a tribe of farmers and fishers, the Warao eat what they grow, catch and cook. They make their own bread, plant cassava, pumpkin and potato, and fish for their food. In Belém, their daily subsistence is based on the bread they make at home and the fish they buy with whatever money they have. Part of their income comes from “collecting,” what they call the act of begging for money on the streets. Mariluz also receives money from the Brazilian government’s welfare program, Bolsa Família, which goes to feed everyone in the family.

Collecting and government aid are often the only solutions for a rural peoples who have to overcome numerous obstacles to survive in the city. Compounding the lack of adequate infrastructure and the scarce resources to meet basic needs, there’s also a language barrier: their different language and culture make integration and communication with the local community difficult.

The Warao also face prejudice and racism driven by hate and xenophobic rhetoric from the far right. Mariluz says she’s discriminated against when she tries to find a job: “We have sent out résumés to several companies since 2019, but we haven’t been able to find jobs. All we get is promises during interviews, but the call never comes.”

She says she worked briefly at an Adventist church that had a program for Venezuelan immigrants, but was dismissed after 16 months.

According to Janaina Galvão, head of the UNHCR office in Belém, “the Warao population’s main challenges are access to focused health care, education, and income generation policies that take into account specific characteristics of Indigenous people. Furthermore, access to land and decent housing has been an important obstacle, even though Indigenous communities in Belém and [the neighboring municipality of] Ananindeua have already taken important steps in this area by buying land collectively.”

Indigenous Warao begging for money on the streets of Belém. Image by João Paulo Guimarães for Mongabay.
The Warao used to catch their fish in the Orinoco River; now they have to buy it at markets in Belém. Image by João Paulo Guimarães for Mongabay.

An unprecedented law

The arrival of the Warao in Belém has exposed a gap in refugee policies. Although the city is known for its hospitality and its history of welcoming refugees, the lack of a coordinated system to deal with this specific migration flow has left these populations vulnerable.

The UNHCR estimates there are around 700 Warao in Belém and Ananindeua. Others also live in the Pará municipalities of Santarém, Parauapebas, Marabá, Altamira, Itaituba, Salinópolis and Benevides. Their numbers are provided by local governments, but can vary depending on the time of year, given their high level of mobility within Brazil.

The lack of strategies to face the challenges caused by these migratory displacements caught the attention of a group of people in Belém who managed to advance municipal legislation in a joint action.

Working with the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) and the UNHCR, Fernando Carneiro, the head of the City Council’s human rights committee, pushed through Bill 9897/2023 in record time.

Indigenous Warao people in the district of Outeiro, in Belém. Image by João Paulo Guimarães for Mongabay.
Guajará Bay, which borders the district where the Warao live. Image by João Paulo Guimarães for Mongabay.

The idea occurred during a march in Belém to protest the murder of Moïse Kabagambe, a Congolese refugee killed in Rio de Janeiro in 2022. At the time, Carneiro met with Samuel Medeiros, a lawyer and president of the OAB’s foreign relations committee, who suggested drafting municipal legislation to address Belém’s migration policies.

Carneiro embraced the idea, but explained that the City Council’s internal regulations imposed several limitations and that they would have to design a bill that could be approved without running foul of the Constitution, and which addressed migration regulations with the active participation of the Warao community.

“We designed the articles in the bill with the help of the Warao, during several hearings at the OAB. We read the sections one by one with the help of an interpreter, and they gave their opinions according to their needs,” Carneiro says. “After the bill was drafted, we introduced it and it was voted in record time. It was signed into law within a year. Those who are familiar with and follow legislative procedures know that this is not easy or common.”

The second stage was the creation of a Municipal Committee for the Migrant, Stateless, Asylum-Seeking and Refugee Population on the same day the law was signed. The committee is chaired by the Belém deputy mayor, and involves several municipal departments, such as those on education, citizenship and human rights, economy, and health, as well as 10 civil society representatives.

“Today, with the immigration legislation sanctioned, we can say that Belém is at a very advanced stage from a legislative point of view,” Medeiros says. “What is new about Belém is that we are the only ones, as far as I have been able to research, who have created [legal] devices with the purpose of protecting the specific characteristics of Indigenous refugees.”

Warao handicrafts. Image by João Paulo Guimarães for Mongabay.
Mariliz Garcia, a resident of the Warao community in Outeiro, Belém. Image by João Paulo Guimarães for Mongabay.

Banner image: Mariliz Garcia, a resident of the Warao community in Outeiro, Belém. Image by João Paulo Guimarães for Mongabay.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 18, 2023.